As someone who lives in New York City and grew up in the northeast, the Trenton Thunder have long been a team with whom I am familiar. I first attended one of their games when I was in high school (the exact date is lost to the ages, but I almost certainly had a shaved head and was wearing a Beastie Boys t-shirt) and since I started writing for MiLB.com in 2005 I’ve made it a point to visit Trenton’s Mercer Waterfront Park at least once a season.
But here’s the thing — all of these excursions were as a fan. Despite Trenton’s proximity to my base of operations, I never quite found the time to give the team my not-yet-patented “On the Road” treatment.
Until this past Saturday, that is. Showing a level of professional commitment unrivaled in the annals of mankind, I woke up and caught a NJ Transit train running on the Northeast Corridor line. It originated at New York Penn Station and, 91 minutes later, arrived at the recently refurbished Trenton Transit Center. I’m a veteran rider of the Northeast Corridor Line, and have always enjoyed the beautiful ugliness that can be seen along the way. Or is that ugly beauty?
Usually on these trips I make a quick stopoff at Elizabeth, NJ in order to buy a Garment that’s right for me. I absolutely love the style, service and selection of the Pink Room, and wish this was the banner ad currently pulsating at the top of this blog.
But today I was unable to make a visit to The Pink Room, as there was a Trenton Thunder employee waiting to give me a ride from the train station. And not just any employee!
Now THIS is some beautiful ugliness, an intern in a hot dog suit standing in the pouring rain. From here on out, I knew that I was going to have a good day.
It’s only a 10-minute drive from the train station to the ballpark, especially when you’re hot-dogging it. And, wouldn’t you know it? By the time we got there it wasn’t even raining anymore.
Off to the left there were multiple charitable drives that were taking place, as part of the Thunder’s annual “Good Deed Game” promotion.
Sez the team:
The Good Deed Game will feature a blood drive to benefit the Community Blood Council of New Jersey, a school supplies drive to support the learning center at the East Trenton Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a non-perishable food drive to benefit the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, a toiletries drive to support HomeFront, a clothing drive that will benefit the Rescue Mission of Trenton, and new this year, a pet supplies drive to support The Shelter Animal Project.
The promotion included fan incentives, with each donation earning its own reward (read more about it in the press release linked to above).
I was very eager to give blood, because it had been a while — in fact, it was my inability to donate which had led, ultimately, to my diagnosis of celiac disease. To briefly recap: I was rejected from giving blood several times earlier this year, due to low iron levels (ie anemia). And the reason I had anemia was because gluten was damaging the linings of my small intestine, therefore making me unable to absorb iron properly.
So, anyway, it was with some trepidation that I entered the Bloodmobile. I didn’t want to be rejected again!
And I wasn’t! The nurse who tested me said “Cue the Black Sabbath, because you’re an Iron Man!” I then complimented her for making such a well-timed comic remark. “Call me Tina Fe,” she replied.
Or at least that’s how I remember the conversation going. I wasn’t taking notes, on account of the needle in my arm.
Giving blood is really easy — they extracted a pint in six and a half minutes, during which I sat in this comfortable chair and watched the very end of Mystic River (spoiler alert — one of the last shots is of a brooding Sean Penn clapping during a small town parade). I was also treated to some Powerade and a bag of Bugles, the closest thing to a gluten-free snack that they had available (“may contain wheat,” the bag said. “May”?!).
And that’s not all! I also was given a t-shirt AND got to wear an awesome bandage for the remainder of the evening. Everyone should give blood! (Unless, you know, you’re anemic due to an as-of-yet undiagnosed case of celiac disease.)
I felt fine after the blood donation, and as I made my way back outside the game was about to start (Saturday was a doubleheader, with the first game commencing at 5). While there was a steady trickle of fans buying tickets and making their way through the gate, I decided to do a quick lap around the stadium’s exterior before making my way inside.
The ticket-buying public:
The view from the front of Mercer Waterfront Park is thoroughly uninspiring…
but it’s called “Waterfront Park” for a reason. As I made my way around the side of the facility, toward the outfield, the scenery improved considerably.
The Thunder bullpen, quite literally, have their backs to the wall.
The visitors — not so much.
As much as I enjoy taking photos through chain link fences, I decided it was time to finally enter the ballpark. The steps leading up to the concourse are a most imposing sight.
And they lead directly behind home plate.
But, as always, there wasn’t much time to watch the game. Upon entering the stadium, I met up with a Biz Blog reader by the name of Jeff Vervlied. We have corresponded several times over the last year or so, and this correspondence was initially motivated by my casual mention in a blog post that I grew up in the town of Ambler, PA. Jeff lives in Ambler, and his son and daughter are currently students at Wissahickon High and Middle schools, respectively. (I attended Wissahickon throughout the entirety of my public school career, en route to achieving MiLB.com fame and fortune).
I was flattered that Jeff drove all the way to Trenton just to say hello, and even more flattered that he brought along a Lower Gwynedd baseball fitted hat! (This will be it for the Montgomery County name-dropping, promise).
But hat delivery wasn’t the only item on the agenda. There was also this:
And, 1100+ words later, that’s where we’ll leave off. There is still MUCH more to come from Trenton: pork roll, crab fries, mascot heads, hanging strollers, Bon Jovi, Van Halen tribute bands, cheese balls, Ryan Tatusko, grammar errors, Americana, coupon distribution, dizzy bat races, BBQ ribs, local wines, inclement weather, fireworks, an abundance of baseball haiku and the facilitation of awesomeness.
Keep reading and I’ll keep writing, okay?
It’s time for another “Return to the Road” post, in which I, yes, return to all of the road trip content that I wasn’t able to get to the first time around. My previous post in the series focused on Oklahoma City; today we move on to Tulsa.
But after taking in the game on Friday evening, I spent Saturday late morning/early afternoon checking out the area surrounding the ballpark. It’s located in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, which was once known as “Black Wall Street.” There is some serious history here, including a sickening act of mass violence that every American should know about.
My hotel was located about a mile or so from the ballpark, and as I wandered over there Tulsa felt empty and quiet — sleeping in on a Saturday after another long work week, I suppose.
The purpose of my return to the Greenwood District was to visit John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, located directly across the street from ONEOK Field.
Dr. John Hope Franklin was a civil rights activist and scholar best known for his seminal 1947 work From Slavery to Freedom. The non-profit John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation was founded in 2007, and it was this organization that envisioned and secured the funding for Reconciliation Park.
The Park memorializes the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which is explained thusly (click to enlarge!):
Just the day before I had visited the memorial for the victims of the 1995 Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City, and now here I was contemplating another vicious act of violence. The motivations and methods of the two incidents are vastly different, but they are united in that they are both notable examples of domestic terrorism.
The park’s website explains that the following “represent actual images from the 1921 riot.”
“Hostility – A white man fully armed for assault”
“Humiliation – A black man with his hands raised in surrender”
“Hope – The white director of the Red Cross holding a black baby”
This is the “Tower of Reconciliation,” which “depicts the history of the African American struggle from Africa to America.”
The final word (again, click to enlarge):
Further memorializing can be found on the sidewalk outside of ONEOK Field, which pays tribute to the businesses destroyed in the riots:
Just around the block is North Greenwood Avenue, a quaint street filled with local businesses.
It was here that I found my lunch destination, one that was wholeheartedly recommended by several members of the Drillers’ front office staff: the self-explanatory “Fat Guy’s Burger Bar” (note the placement of the apostrophe; the place is named after one particular fat guy as opposed to a coalition of them).
This place is not for the faint (or weak) of heart, but the burgers were absolutely fantastic. From the website:
“We take two beef patties, put butter and cheese in between them, seal them up and then cook ’em. When it’s ready you have a burger with molten butter and cheese filling the inside.”
As you can see, most of those who have attempted to take the “Fat Guy Challenge” have failed. This is probably a good thing. The challenge: two pound patty, pound of bacon, two hot dogs, eight slices of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, choice of condiment and a pound of french fries.
When I was there, no one was attempting such a suicidal endeavor.
And I wasn’t about to, either. My order, in words:
And, as it actually looked:
I’ve never been all that much of a burger guy, but this one was as good as it looks. In this new post-celiac disease era, I would have to order it sans bun. That seems a little absurd, but it would still be worth it. And the fries – those wonderful, wonderful “ballpark fries” — are okay! Not sure about which of the 16 dipping sauces are gluten-free, but I’m sure there would still be options.
And that’s about it for my supplemental Tulsa content. On the way back from the hotel I did take note of this notable piece of Tulsa architecture:
This trailer was parked in front of said building, and I would have liked to meet its owner.
The “I Believe Guy” is one Brian Jackson. From his website:
- Brian Jackson, a Cherokee, Creek and Seminole Native American, is a Nationally known motivational speaker who uses true stories of how he has turned struggles into success. Brian has blown up over 6000 hot water bottles in his career, held the Guinness World Record for “Fastest Hot Water Bottle Burst” for over 3 1/2 years and the Guinness World Record for Blowing up until bursting 3 hot water bottles in 1 minute 8 seconds! He has been known to break walls of 2″ concrete bricks, even on fire at times, has bent 1 1/2 ” of steel rebar over his head, torn a deck of playing cards in half in 3 seconds, and is known for making some awesome balloon animals! His most impressive feat to date, “Heaviest Vehicle Lifted with Breath” 2520 pounds!
Somebody book this guy at a Minor League ballpark!
At the ballpark, and in life, I’ve always been the sort of person who will eat just about anything. This attitude has certainly been beneficial to my professional career, as the consumption of concessions is integral to the Minor League experience. My desire is to document the full range of what each ballpark has to offer, so why would I turn anything down?
Yes to everything!
Except, no. The days of unthinking acquiescence to each and every culinary option placed before me are now over. Call it poetic justice, or delicious irony, or merely a spot of bad luck within a life of immense privilege, but I, Ben Hill, steadfast chronicler of the Minor League culinary scene, have celiac disease. From now until whenever it may be that I shuffle off of this mortal coil, I must abide by a gluten-free diet.
What does this mean? Well, no more Stoney Dogs. That’s for damn sure.
For those (such as myself, circa two months ago) who are blissfully ignorant of what celiac disease is, here’s how it’s defined by the National Library of Health: a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats.
And with that, the majority of ballpark foods are rendered off limits. Virtually all buns and rolls contain wheat flour, so there go hot dogs, sausages and hamburgers. Pretzels are not allowed, nor are corn dogs, and nacho cheese is deeply suspect. And anything that is breaded and fried most likely contains gluten, so next time I’m in Memphis I’ll have to forgo the Chicken on a Stick:
And, oh yeah: no more beer.
Thanks for everything, Yuengling. It’s not you, it’s me.
As for how I received this particular diagnosis, like a lot of things in life it was a convoluted and roundabout process. I have long made it a point to donate blood on a consistent basis, but over the last year or so I was regularly rejected from giving due to low iron levels. At first I shrugged off this unexplained anemia, like, “Fine, whatever, maybe I just need some spinach and/or a steak dinner.” But after the third time it happened, the woman at the blood center expressed surprise and concern that an individual such as myself (male, 33) would have such a condition and said that I really should see a doctor.
I did, eventually, and an appointment with my general practitioner then led to visits with both a hematologist and a gastroenterologist. They both suspected celiac, and an endoscopy in the beginning of May (shortly after I returned from my Florida road trip) made it official. To paraphrase Billy Joel: “The doctor diagnosed me as a celiac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac/said you ought to know by now.”
So, to incorporate my personal experiences with the definition of celiac disease provided above, what was happening was this: gluten was damaging the linings of my small intestines, making me unable to absorb iron properly. Hence, the anemia. I can’t say that I was experiencing any symptoms that, in and of themselves, would have caused me to seek medical attention, and there’s a part of me that wishes I hadn’t attempted to give blood because ignorance is bliss. I’d still be living my life like it was 2011.
But that’s a faulty perspective, as in the grand scheme of things this diagnosis is nothing but a positive. Having celiac disease makes me much more aware of what is in the food I am eating, and a mindful approach to my diet is something that had previously been lacking. I will be a healthier person, and, among other things, this will lead to an increased ability to win mascot races. And the costumes don’t even need to be gluten-free!
The more diligent readers of this blog have surely already put two and two together: I knew of my celiac disease prior to my most recent “OK-AR-MO-TN” road trip, but I kept it under wraps and cheated like hell throughout the entire thing. This was a deliberate decision that I made going in, for two reasons:
One, I wanted the chance to say goodbye, as it were, and I certainly had some bittersweet moments throughout the entirety of the trip (that Yuengling in Jackson, TN, seen above, being a prime example). And, two, I thought that it would be beneficial to simply make a note of the challenges I’d be facing going forward without, you know, actually having to face them.
But truth be told, I’m not all that upset about my new ballpark limitations. As a writer I’m always looking for new angles, and having celiac disease while touring Minor League ballparks is a great one and something that I’d never have been creative enough to think of on my own. My condition will add another layer to the story, helping to spread awareness of the gluten-free lifestyle while giving teams the chance to promote the options that they do have available. At this point I’m a well-respected figure in this industry (or at least that’s what I tell myself), so I believe that I can play a role in having teams, when possible, re-assess their operations with an eye toward making “concessions” to, and for, those with dietary limitations.
But, that said, I want to reiterate the following as strongly as I possibly can: I WILL STILL WRITE ABOUT ANY AND ALL BALLPARK FOOD ITEMS! Even if I can’t eat it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in it. My job is to provide a full picture of the stadium experience, and this, obviously, means that nothing is off limits.
On my previous road trips, there have been some teams that wished to highlight the depth and breadth of their concession operations by giving me extensive food tours. I am still interested in doing this, where applicable, but before the game I may recruit a fan to join me as a designated eater. If I end up visiting a team near YOU, then get in touch. I may end up living vicariously through your enjoyment of the food, in much the same way that readers of this blog have told me that they have enjoyed living vicariously through mine. What goes around comes around.
I’ll close with a necessary, and hopefully obvious, observation: this is all a work in progress. Being diagnosed with celiac disease doesn’t make me any sort of an expert on it. I will learn as I go along, and I will certainly make mistakes. (And, make no mistake, there is much to learn: before the diagnosis, I thought a “dedicated fryer” was a priest that was really committed to his job, and that “cross contamination” might be the sort of thing he’d be prone to worrying about.)
As I have done throughout my career, I now defer to you. Be you team employee or fan, I’d be very interested in your gluten-free feedback. What, if anything, has your favorite team done to accommodate fans with this condition? And, among those who are currently gluten-free, what are your favorite ballpark foods?
In its own weird way, this is gonna be fun.